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Indecent Images Campaign - An Offender's Story

February 15, 2018


As a national campaign seeks to educate young men on the law surrounding viewing online sexual images of under-18s, a convicted offender gives a rare and unique insight into how and why they might risk everything to do it

An average looking young man in his early 20s, a student who plays the guitar and still lives at home – he is unlikely to fit the image most people would have of an internet offender. He is doing well at university and has a small but close group of friends, both men and women, and friends through worthy interests outside of his studies. He uses a laptop to visit social media sites like Tumblr and a mobile telephone for texting and Facebook messaging.

He is exactly the kind of young man that a national education campaign is targeting.

Research has supported the view that men aged 18-24 are noticeably less aware of the law surrounding online sexual images, and some are embarrassed to admit it.

In the United Kingdom taking, making, sharing and possessing indecent photographs of under-18s is illegal. The term "making" can include opening, accessing, downloading and storing online content and “sharing” includes sending on an email, offering on a file sharing platform, uploading to a site that other people have access to and possessing with a view to distribute. “Indecent” is undefined in legislation but can include penetrative and non-penetrative sexual activity.

Using the hashtag No Ifs No Buts, the joint Government campaign informs straightforwardly on the law, builds understanding of how sexual images of under-18s may be reported and highlights the harm caused to victims and their families through real-life case studies. Experts at North Yorkshire-based charity Marie Collins Foundation work with children who have been abused online, helping them come to terms with what has happened and supporting their recovery.

Founder and CEO Tink Palmer says: “These cases are highly complex and it takes a long time to unpick the damage caused; it runs deep, and the effects can last a lifetime.”

Through specially created videos and other material, the campaign also informs internet users that the age of subjects in images they see online is not always clear; even those who they assume are over-18 may in fact be children who have been forced or coerced. Anyone who encounters sexual images they suspect may be of children is encouraged to report them to the Internet Watch Foundation.

In the case of the student in his early 20s, it will never be known if the campaign would have influenced him as he was caught by Cumbria Police, arrested, charged and prosecuted before it began.

In a candid interview, he admits that his interest in sexual imagery began with watching pornography when he was aged between 12 and 14. Later he started using his mobile phone to view porn.

“I would look for the shock factor. I began to look at more extreme porn as it wasn't the mainstream porn and that is what gave me the thrill,” he says.

“I would continue to look at more extreme and taboo images away from the mainstream. Different types of images appealed at different times of my life. Once I lost enjoyment and became de-sensitised I would move on for more shock images to get the next buzz.”
That “buzz” also came from viewing sexual images of children, so did he ever think about the harm caused to them?
“It depended on the images. If it was young children being clearly forced to do something they didn't want then I'd sit back and question why I was viewing it. But selfie images by teenagers who looked happy I thought were ok. “When I was younger, I was unsure about the ages of what was illegal. I was aware regarding the illegal images of young children. However, I was unsure when it came to teenagers. I was confused that a website would show an image of a teenage girl so presumed that it was ok. I also thought, as one person viewing it what was the problem?”

He admits that, when he knew it was illegal, his response was to be “more secretive”.
“I was careful that nobody would find out and was constantly deleting my history or wouldn't save the images. I wouldn't let anyone use my devices and all had passwords. 

“I can't recall talking to lads at school but did so on Tumblr. I'd post sites and reblog legal images. In terms of the images I knew were illegal I'd keep them to myself.

“My viewing would go round in circles since I had started. When in relationships it would reduce, differ or begin to build up.” Later, when his partner became pregnant he says he weaned himself off illegal porn and stopped viewing it. He never believed he would be caught.

“I was complacent. If I had viewed an image I knew was illegal and hadn't had a knock on the door within a week, I thought I must be ok. I would then look for more.”

The referral to Cumbria Police came via CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command). Plain clothes officers arrived at his place of work to arrest him. He was alone in his office. They spoke with his manager. With a solicitor by his side, he offered no comment at interview. Arrested on suspicion of viewing and distributing images, he initially denied the charge believing he had deleted all the images on his devices, which the police had seized, and pleaded not guilty at Magistrates' Court. He was later advised to change his plea due to evidence against him. At Crown Court, his barrister offered the low number of images and the support of his family and home life as mitigation.

He received a three-year Community Order including 100 hours of unpaid work and was fined over £2,000. He also undertook a sex offender treatment programme and is on the Sexual Offenders Register. “I wasn't looking forward to the unpaid work as I was nervous of what the other people doing it would think of me once they knew what I had been convicted of,” he admits.

The wider impact of his offending on close family is something with which professionals working in the field are very familiar. His first child was born a month after he was charged and initially he had no contact with the baby. Now, he has limited access but only under supervision and is not allowed to stay at the same address as her. His parents, although reluctant to talk about what he had done, have stood by him and have allowed him to remain living with them.

He lost his job, and admits to being unprepared for how he would struggle financially. The police informed the activity group of which he was a member because children were also in the group.

He believes the Government education campaign is necessary, and that, once educated, people will report indecent images online.

“I think it is a good thing. More needs to be done to prevent, due to technology moving so fast. Children are getting into porn at a much earlier age than before. I think both males and females need education.”
However, he doesn’t believe it will stop everyone.

“It is too accessible currently. Social media is increasingly being used to share images. It is also difficult with teenagers due to changes in society. Some have had sex before the age of 16 and are swapping indecent images without thinking. Many view adult porn.”

Even though he says he now views children in sexual images as victims, “especially if they are forced”, discussing the issue on his course revealed that some offenders do not see the children as victims.
He says he regrets what he did and hopes that his story will discourage others.

“I was ashamed of my actions and what I'd thrown away by viewing illegal images and who I'd affected.
“At the time I wondered why I was viewing images but continued. I would use the images to masturbate and then regret it, however I’d soon continue. After my arrest and conviction I was filled with regret about what I had lost, what I could have lost and the effect it had on my family. I know I'm lucky my family stood by me.”

With thanks to Cumbria Police.
To report concerning content, visit www.iwf.org.uk; to access more information on the government campaign, visit https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/indecent-images-of-children-guidance-for-young-people

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“It is comforting to see that the Marie Collins Foundation is trying to address the issues of children harmed online and enabling front line practitioners to conduct work with children that is based on relevant research. I will be a regular visitor to the website and will be advertising the charity in the workshops I facilitate.”

Social worker, MCF training attendee

Marie Collins Foundation Partners